“To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence... When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
C.S. Lewis, On Three Ways of Writing For Children
48 years ago, when the world was black and white and mist-shrouded, a new TV show, one that would go on to become my favourite, emerged into the public consciousness with the image of a sixties police box sitting incongruously in a junkyard. Doctor Who, for much of its history, has been a show aimed at children – for a while, adults claimed it, and expanded its horizons, but upon its relaunch in 2005, it was placed back in the hands of 12 year olds. Rightly so; this is where it belongs.
Meanwhile, I have a small army of Daleks on my coffee table and a Sonic Screwdriver sitting on one of my bookcases. I’m 36 now, by most standards I’m too old for toys, and yet it’s more complicated than that – Doctor Who exists, for many of its fans, in the memory of their childhood and as part of the mythology of childhood. Nowadays this is front and centre – the 11th Doctor is as much a big kid as he is a scarily intelligent 900 year old alien – with plots revolving around children or their absence. It’s not so much that the adult world is impotent, but that the world of children is important and mythic on a level that the adults in the show can’t always understand. This is a show where the main character claims to speak Baby. Should I grow out of the show? Maybe it’ll happen, but I don’t feel the need to throw away my Gallifrey University t-shirt and start watching The Only Way Is Essex.
“I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
JRR Tolkien, On Fairy Stories
Maybe there’s something else attractive about the show’s connection to childhood – the ability to look at the world in a different way for a while. The TARDIS Eruditorum makes the claim that Doctor Who is a show about running and escape, and while it’s not just about those, they’re sitting there at the very beginning: “Have you ever thought what it’s like to be wanderers in the Fourth Dimension? Have you? To be exiles?” the Doctor asks in the very first episode, “Susan and I are cut off from our own planet – without friends or protection. But one day we shall get back. Yes, one day….”
This makes sense – despite its original remit to educate children in such down to earth things as science and history, Doctor Who is fundamentally escapist, either making something magical or scary out of the ordinary – police boxes, shop dummies, DVD extras – or catapulting the ordinary into the depths of space and history. The first episode was delayed slightly because of the Kennedy assassination; Doctor Who was born into a world that could use a little escape. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because escaping from things that are constricting, imprisoning, stifling, is a positive thing – escape, make it to the brow of the nearest hill and see a whole new world laid out before you, one that you could previously only dream of because everyone told you your imagination was too silly.
“Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
Neil Gaiman, riffing on a line from GK Chesterton
Yet imagination has dark corners – the monster under your bed, the bogeyman in your closet. Those are childhood fears, of course, but they eventually give way to other concerns – illness, redundancy, the breakdown of relationships. These are the monsters we fight, metaphorically, and a show like Doctor Who, that was slammed for its portrayal of monsters but that came out the other side, helps give us the metaphorical tools to fight back. We know there are bad things out there, the problem is not giving in to pessimism and despair and the belief that the monsters are all-powerful. Sometimes it’s important to see them beaten, to watch them fall and know that victory is possible.
But wait, it’s about more than just proving that monsters can be beaten – Doctor Who suggests that monsters can be beaten, not by bullets and bombs, but imagination, intelligence and laughter. It’s not enough to prove that your enemies can be defeated; you have to be able to live with that victory without becoming a monster yourself. If Doctor Who can promote the idea that picking up a book is better than picking up a gun – or, say, an abusive text message – then it’s served a noble purpose.
And so I’ll figure out a way to celebrate the birthday of my favourite show, and I’ll look forward to new episodes, because there’s nothing else like it on TV. It’s the glorious story of a madman in a box, and I love it: Happy Birthday, Doctor Who.